Orphan Trains

Orphan Trains


Starting in the 1850s, poor and homeless children from New York City were relocated to rural towns and farm communities mostly in the Midwest. Many, but not all of them, were orphans, and the goal was to provide for them a better life. They traveled west by trains that came to be known as Orphan Trains. Once there, some became foster children; some were adopted into loving families. Others became live-in workers, sometimes abused or mistreated in their new surroundings. In this lesson, you will learn more about what happened to these children and what was gained and lost by both the children and society as a whole.


Read the selection of announcements and journal reprints about Orphan Train adoptions, The New York Children, on the Orphan Trains of Nebraska website.

Look for answers to these questions as you are reading and be prepared to discuss them with your class:

  • Why were the children on the trains?
  • What would happen to the children who were "selected"?
  • What about the children who were not chosen?

To continue your exploration of Orphan Trains, visit A History of the Orphan Trains. As your read, think about the answers to these questions:

  • What were the Orphan Trains?
  • Were all of the children on the trains orphans?
  • What problems did sending the children out West solve?
  • What problems did sending the children out West create?

Your assignment now is to conduct research on Orphan Trains using the resources below. The resources provide information either about what happened to children on the Orphan Trains or about the conditions from which they were being “rescued.” Make sure that you examine resources from both of these topics. As you do so, fill out the chart that your teacher has given you. In one column, list the examples of positive aspects of the Orphan Trains. In the other column, list negative ones. Be sure to note the source for all of the information that you include in your chart.

After you have conducted your research, use the charts to write an essay on the Orphan Trains. The essay should consider both the good and the bad aspects of the practice of sending children away from their homes for adoption. Discuss the benefits and drawbacks from the viewpoint of the individual children and families as well as from society at large. Your essays should conclude with your stated opinion about whether the Orphan Trains were, on balance, a good or a bad thing.

Internet Resources about the Orphan Trains:

Internet Resources about living conditions in 19th Century New York City:

Books about Orphan Trains:

  • Fry, Anette. The Orphan Trains. New York: New Discovery Books, 1994.
  • Holt, Marilyn. The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
  • Patrick, Michael, Evelyn Sheets and Evelyn Trickel. We Are A Part of History: The Orphan Trains. Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Co., 1990.
  • Orphan Train Heritage Society of America (OTHSA). Orphan Train Riders: Their Own Stories. Vols I-IV. Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press, Inc. 1992, 1993.
  • Warren, Andrea. All Aboard the Orphan Trains. Ticknor & Fields, 1995.
  • Warren, Andrea. Orphan Train Rider: One Boy's True Story. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1995.

This esheet is a part of the Orphan Trains lesson.

Did you find this resource helpful?

Esheet Details